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Friday, February 20, 2015

Gross supports community school concept

Ernie Wells looks at maps of proposed Seven Corners redevelopment concepts at a community meeting at Bailey's Elementary School.
Mason Supervisor Penny Gross told the audience at a community meeting on Seven Corners redevelopment Feb. 19 that she supports the concept of a community school and that the Willston Center is a possible a location.

Local residents and school officials have been calling for a school at the Willston site for the past few years, and there’s also been some discussion about a community school there that also includes various health and social services.

Gross said she’s been meeting with county and Fairfax County Public Schools officials about a facility that could include a preschool, a variety of family services, and the organizations currently housed in the Willston Multicultural Center. “Is the Willston Center the best site? I don’t know,” she said.

A proposed East County Office Building, which had been under consideration for the Willston Center site, is now “in abeyance,” said Elizabeth Hagg of the Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization.

There are also ongoing discussions about how a public facility will fit into Seven Corners redevelopment, whether it’s the East County Office Building or not, Gross said, adding, “We’re looking at sites” for the office building.

About 80 residents attended the community dialogue on Seven Corners hosted by Gross, which was designed to give people a chance to comment on the redevelopment proposals agreed to by the Seven Corners Land Use and Transportation Task Force, which wrapped up its work last fall, and the draft recommendations from the Special Working Group for Area C (the Sears site).

The task force plan calls for mixed-use redevelopment, including apartments, retail, and green space based on a village concept and a transportation improvement plan aimed at reducing traffic congestion. The transportation plan calls for a ring road around the Seven Corners interchange, new streets to give drivers more alternatives for getting through the intersection, and more connections to make it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate the area.

The task forced failed to reach a consensus for Area C (which includes Sears and the two office buildings on either side), so Gross appointed the Special Working Group to develop a plan for that site. The recommendations of both groups will be incorporated into a comprehensive plan amendment, which will be considered by the Fairfax County Planning Commission.

Too much density?

Some residents, who spoke at the meeting said they’re generally happy with the proposals on the table because they call for less residential density than early versions, while other people said the plans would still add too much housing to an already-congested area.

Jim Kilbourne, president of the Lake Barcroft Association said the Special Working Group’s current plan for the Sears site is “a vast improvement” over what the task force was talking about last spring – there would be less residential development, more mixed use, and more green space – although traffic and overcrowded schools are still major concerns.

Christopher Bell spoke in support of redevelopment, noting it would lead to increased property values and more amenities, but also expressed concerns about the possibility of increased traffic on neighborhood streets. Lake Barcroft resident Sarah Mattingly said she supports the Working Group’s plan, noting,  “It’s not perfect, but we have come a long way.”

At the Working Group’s last meeting Feb. 5, members agreed to reduce the amount of residential development from 85 percent of the Sears site to 79 percent. As it stands now, the draft calls for 375 multifamily units, 72 townhouses, 40,000 square feet of retail, 50,000 square feet of office space, and 45,000 square feet for entertainment uses. The group plans to have one more meeting to finalize a plan.

Whether that’s an improvement depends on where the starting point is. When the group held a design workshop, residential density was at 54 percent, said Debbie Ratliff. At the open house last fall, no option had more 70 percent, and now it’s at nearly 80 percent, she said. “That’s not an improvement,” she said.

The proposed density for the entire Seven Corners area is “gargantuan” and “off the charts,” said Debbie Smith of Ravenwood. She said the proposal would result in a lot more residential units than planned in other, smaller revitalization areas, such as Reston Town Center and Springfield. And, unlike those areas, Seven Corners isn’t close to Metro.

In response to a concern raised by Parklawn resident Mollie Loeffler about the need to address overcrowded schools, Gross noted that the Seven Corners revitalization plan has a 40-year time frame and said, “we know additional schools must be built.”

Mike Cook, who works with the Vietnamese Resettlement Association, which is based at the Willston Center, said he is worried that redevelopment will result in the loss of low-income housing in Seven Corners.

Gross that she directed the task force to ensure that if new housing is built, it must include the same number of low-income units, 585, that are there now. Developers would also be encouraged to include additional affordable units.

Catriona McCormack, president of the Ravenwood Civic Association and a member of the Special Working Group on the Sears site, said there should have been more opportunities for community input for the other Seven Corners areas. 

The traffic mess

Mason is already the most densely populated district and has the most overcrowded schools, said Ravenwood resident Don Smith, charging the proposed redevelopment would make it all worse.

He noted that a letter from VDOT Land Development Program Manager Paul Kraucunas raises lots of questions over whether the transportation proposals are even feasible – plus there’s no cost estimate for the transportation improvements or an indication of where the funds will come from.

Gross said implementing the changes for the Seven Corners interchange would cost “well over $100 million” and would be implemented “at some distance in the future.” Funding would come from a mix of county and state sources.

Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, said the Board of Supervisors authorized $3 million to begin a study of the Seven Corners intersection. Once that study is completed, the county would identify specific projects and seek funding. The proposed ring road would be phased in, he said, with the first improvements coming on line in 10 to 15 years.

In response to a request from an audience member to put the traffic improvements in place before redevelopment happens, Gross said, “we don’t spend money on transportation plans before the Board of Supervisors approves the comprehensive plan. That would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”


  1. Great reporting, Ellie. It's worth noting that the Task Force plan calls for nearly 6,000 new apartments at 7 Corners.

    1. Which will all, of course, be inhabited by millenials and DINKS. Build it, and they will come! /s

  2. I'm sorry I could not make the meeting last night. I find it funny that Penny Gross is now seeing the light that Willston Center could include a school, but the article only mentions "preschool". Was anyone there that can clarify what level of school would be included? Simply adding a preschool is not much of a concession in my opinion.

    1. I asked that and was told by Penny that there is a waiting list for preschool and she was talking to fcps on that.

  3. You put your palace in, you pull your palace out, you put your palace in, then you move it all about. Maybe the county should have just agreed to a long term lease at 6245 Leesburg Pike.

  4. Vintage Penny Gross. Turning a straightforward school construction proposal into yet another bloated capital spending project. Your ECOB project is fading so you rename it a community school and dump the cost onto an already strained school budget. Then you bury the cost by funding it with yet another multi-million dollar bond issue. There's enough vacant office space in the county to preclude the necessity for cluttering the Willston site with expensive new construction that's likely to add appreciably to traffic in that area.

  5. What is wanted and much needed is an elementary school with a campus on the Willston site. Why are high rise schools being forced upon us by Penny and the Board of Supervisors (SE Quadrant at Columbia Pike) when we still have an opportunity for a real campus; real greenspace. As far as the moniker “community school”, I have no objection as long as it is an elementary school, not a preschool.

    On the issue of density: It boggles the mind that Penny gets away with loading 7 Corners and Bailey's Crossroads with a total of 15,000 new dwellings (9,000 already set for Bailey’s Crossroads and 6,000 for 7 Corners if the current special working group (SWG) adopts what was discussed at their last meeting).

    The planning task forces Penny appoints are heavily weighted with developers and third party interests. Amendments are made after the TF votes that change the intent. Staff interpretations of charrettes and TF deliberations also change the meaning of well-meaning original intentions. The density numbers left hanging at the last SWG are higher than those determined by any of the three charrette groups. How did this happen?

    Another huge example of interpretation and add-on is the East County Government Center that was inserted into the 7 Corners plan. The TF did not vote for an ECGC. I witnessed the TF vote that evening. Rather, there are documents that confirm our Supervisor started planning her ECGC in 2013 and language was inserted into the plan after the September 2014 vote. So much for transparency and community involvement.

    And, so much for fiscal responsibility. Fairfax County has a $179M shortfall and Penny wants an ECGC palace built for $125M. While she now flirts with the idea of a community school, she is spending $3.625M on ECGC design development in 2015 and has 22 staff working on it.

    1. "Why are high rise schools being forced upon us by Penny and the Board of Supervisors." The Upper Bailey's school was a well executed quick fix to accommodate up to 900 students. The proposed Moncure school has over $10 MM in proffers tied to it. This inevitable pointless criticism of both projects and virtually everything else that's being proposed in the Seven Corners - Bailey's corridor reflect a mindset that any project not containing every imaginable amenity is somehow deficient. Development in Mason requires fitting living, working and commercial dwellings into a pre-existing urban setting. There's nothing pastoral about the area. It's slummy and underutilized. The County is aware that private development requires compromise and that no one will ever be completely satisfied with the eventual outcome. So, it's no wonder that many of the persistent complaints are being ignored.

    2. "It's slummy and underutilized." That is so elitist. The Seven Corners shopping centers are fully leased and serve the needs of the community.

      Anyway, Penny Gross describes things this way in a Feb 6th piece in the Washington Business Journal about Seven Corners:

      As for the shopping center, Gross said, it has changed from its original form, an enclosed mall. "But I would say it has not ever been a derelict property, ever," she said. "It has needed to be upgraded, and they've done the upgrades.

      "Seven Corners," Gross said, "to its credit has maintained its viability."

    3. It's viable because Penny says so? The mall consists of a Home Depot and a supermarket. Unless you're into loitering at Borders, there's no other reason to go there. The good news is that most of the low end stores will disappear once development take hold. Moreover, after decades, the county also stands to finally receive some value from the highly underutilized Sears site.

  6. How about checking out the 2 community centers in our area, Baileys, and James Lee, for putting in place the community school and getting it going, independent of this new building initiative? James Lee is a very nice facility and at one time was underutilized, maybe not today, but why no mention of these 2 sites in this discussion of a community school? I know JL is in Providence but so what?

    1. The reason the focus is on Willston is that it serves the Bailey's and Glen Forest Schools. Willston was and has been always available, but Penny kept the Bailey’s students in trailers for 7 years until she found a way to circumvent returning the Willston property to the schools. Hence, Upper Bailey’s, which is subpar. Now Glen Forest Elementary is suffering from overcrowding and a part of that student population could easily access Willston much better than Columbia Pike at Moncure. The students in the Bailey's Community Center area attend Parklawn and it would mean a boundary change to put them in the Columbia Pike school even though it is in their neighborhood. Supposedly the Columbia Pike School would alleviate the overcrowded conditions at Glen Forest, but it is not a walkable or safe route for the students.

    2. You're analysis is well thought out, but it's too short term. Once development takes hold at either end of the Seven Corners - Bailey's corridor, it's going to expand up and down Route 7. Those immigrant tenements in the Patrick Henry and Culmore areas will go the way of Arna Valley. That's the way development works. So, some school boundaries will inevitably have to be moved anyway. Moreover, to prevent the need for quick fixes like Upper Bailey's, it's best to anticipate the need for schools in advance. Moncure will benefit the Bailey's area in the long run, so it's best to build it now while developers are around to pay a big chunk of the construction costs.

      BTW, Penny Gross stated last week that the ECOB is a priority among some of her constituents. I take that to mean the same bunch who want to implement their utopian vision of Fairfax on the backs of taxpayers. So, good luck getting these guys to sign off on cancelling the ECOB.

  7. Seven Corners is a traffic disaster with no metro. It is the absolute worst place to put 1000's of new apartments.

  8. It’s time to call out the supervisor’s supporting cast.

    Supervisor Gross couldn’t have pull off her Seven Corners parlor tricks without the active support of the Office of Community Revitalization (OCR). With an annual payroll in excess of a million dollars spread over only twelve people, OCR staffers have been actively working since 2013 to move the East County Government Center (ECGC) to the Willston school site. Despite assisting at Task Force meeting after Task Force meeting the OCR saw no need to publicly disclose this secret agenda. How is it that the supervisor and the OCR knew a year in advance the outcome of the Task Force’s October 2014 vote?

    1. I'm no Penny Gross fan, but she hasn't exactly kept her plans for the construction of the ECOB a secret. From what I can deduce, the idea is popular with a segment of her supporters. If that's the case, then building the the ECOB is a good political move because it plays to her base. So, don't impute sinister motives to the ECOB simply because you don't like the project. I oppose the idea as well, but to me it's just another of Penny Gross' wasteful capital spending projects.

    2. But Supervisor Gross did keep it a secret. Gross ignored repeated requests and refused to give Willston school back to FCPS and never gave a reason. She was along working closely behind the scenes work with 7 Corners Revitalization Task Force honcho John Thillman to make sure that Willston would not be a school in that plan. It in FOIA docs. That TF did not vote for to have the ECGC put on Willston. That committee did not vote to put a school there. The TF did not specify anything. The ECGC was inserted by county staff into the TF plan AFTER its final vote. Wonder who gave that order?

  9. Penny's general plan to construct the ECOB at Baileys Crossroads was not a secret. What was kept a secret by the supervisor and OCR was their on-going extensive efforts, starting as early as the beginning of 2013, to relocate the ECOB away from Baileys Crossroads to the former Willston School site. Also kept secret was the anticipated $120M price tag of the building and its massive 180,000 square foot size. Another important piece of information withheld from the general public involved OCR land purchase/exchange negotiations with affiliates of Task Force members. These negotiations took place prior to the Task Force's conclusion of its work. One set of negotiations would have displaced 27 families from their apartments with those lessees having no say in the matter. Concerned citizens would have commented on these matters assuming the information had been freely shared by the supervisor and OCR.

    If these types of political actions play to the supervisor’s base then job well done, mission accomplished.